I remember the first time I was classified as not really Black. I remember one of my white friends in middle school complimented me for not having greasy hair. Another one chimed in and agreed, adding that I also didn’t talk loud and ghetto.
After these moments, I knew what I had to do to distance myself from those “other” Black people. I had to speak like my white peers. Dress like them. Force my hair to look like theirs.
As a survival method, I became respectable. I morphed myself into this friendly and palatable Black girl. I didn’t demand things. I didn’t express my anger. I read very much as the good Black girl that won’t fight back.
My white colleagues reward me for this behavior. My very Black family rewards me for this behavior. Our society rewards this behavior.
This is respectability politics: when marginalized groups are told (or teach themselves) that in order to receive better treatment from the group in power, they must behave better.
This phenomenon isn’t exclusive to the Black community. People seem to forget Pride didn’t originate with parades, but riots. And how many t-shirts have you seen reminding people “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”
This is not to say that people shouldn’t be respectful. Activism is rooted in having a deep respect for other people. Asking nicely for liberation isn’t always the most effective way.
Here are three ways respectability harms activism:
Our anger is valid
Anger in the face of oppression is a valid emotion. Anger serves to tell us which of our needs aren’t being met (Thanks Dawn Serra for that email speaking about this). Anger isn’t always destructive and can be a powerful force to motivate us out of complacency.
Respectability won’t protect you from violence
Having a college degree won’t stop someone Black from being shot by the police. Dressing modestly won’t stop a woman from being raped. Asking nicely won’t protect trans women from being murdered.
The oppressed shouldn’t be responsible for changing their behavior
Respectability says that there is something inherently wrong with them. This places the blame on the folks being oppressed to prevent their oppression when it is systems keeping them oppressed. Respectability stifles the creativity that has come from the survival of those who have been oppressed because it is deemed unworthy.
At the end of the day, all people are worthy, and deserve dignity and respect. Our differences give us strength. How they dress or speak or express emotion does not take that away.
You can read more about respectability (or anti-respectability) here:
Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920
Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot
This Bridge Called My Back, Fourth Edition: Writings by Radical Women of Color